And by the bye, the cows are Friesians and the people are Frisians.
While southern Europe has magnificent cathedrals, curving streets and a warm ocean to splash around in, the northern part has squat, solid building, quaint austere chapels and vast empty spaces, especially above you. When you walk in the meadows, the sky stretches over you like an enormous snow cone and every now and then a celestial hand gives it a shake. Driven by the winds from the Arctic north, black rain-clouds roll down, stealing the light and regularly dumping fat showers on the landscape. So, what is it about Fryslân, this small corner of waterlogged land in the far north western corner of Europe? Perhaps it’s the geography: the flatness, the low horizon, the majesty of the skyscapes, but more likely it is part of the psyche of the people. The two slogans that shout the Frisian identity are “Rather dead than slaves” and “Frisians kneel only before God”.
Of course, therein lies the rub: the God part. In any case, to understand a little about the Frisians it is important to understand something about their relationship with God and nature. It used to be said that although not every Frisian believes in God, we all know where He lives. One thing about Frisians is that we love arguing, and we especially love arguing about God. In the rest of the Netherlands there is a saying: two Frisians together makes a religion but three together means a schism. It’s probably pretty close to the mark. As an example, Menno Simmons, who started the Mennonites sect that like the Amish turns its back on all this fancy modernity, was a Frisian. On the other hand, so were Mata Hari, Pieter Stuyvesant and Douwe Egberts. So as well as joyless religions, Frisians also gave the world erotic dancing, cigarettes and strong black coffee.
But, things nowadays are changing, and the change is creating an inter-generational dichotomy. The older part of the population adheres to religion, the younger generation not so much. The dissolution is causing a distinct dilemma in our self-concept. On the one hand, for centuries Frisians have maintained that God gave us our right to be free and independent. On the other God is disappearing. At the same time, the rest of the world is encroaching and the whole idea of being free is fast becoming an impossible and frustrating fiction. But perhaps it has been a delusion all along.
The postcard version of Fryslânas an idyllic place of stunningly beautiful little villages with cute windmills and black and white cows in magnificent open farmlands, is mostly a deception created for tourists. In reality the charming cottages and the smaller farms have nearly all been bought by rich retirees from Holland to the south and Germany to the east, who have done wonders in restoring the buildings but who have also in many cases unwittingly killed off village life because they tend to come only in summer, when the weather is nice. For the rest of the year many of the villages are empty. The fields are owned by foreign multinationals. The Dutch writer Geert Mak, who has a Frisian mother, summed up the shift by declaring that “God had abandoned the villages”, the villages being the Frisian heartland. The claim gives a good indication of not only the changing demographic but also of the importance of religion to the Frisians. Every village, no matter how small, had a church. But churches can’t operate when the largest part of their congregations only visits for three weeks in the summer. Preachers often now come only once a month, rather than twice a week. The church seems to be as much a victim of Economic Rationalism as the small farmers who were forced off the land have been.
Despite all that, a clear sunny day lends credibility to the Frisians’ unshakeable belief that theirs is the best country on Earth and, if it had not been for the Jews to lay claim to the epithet first, Frisians would have no hesitation in proclaiming themselves as God’s chosen people because Frisians have an unshakeable belief in their birth right. We have lived in the area since time immemorial and show no signs of leaving. We have our own language, tour own culture and we can engage safely in running battles with the superficial and sanctimonious economic rationalists from the south. But most of all, we have a unique way of seeing the world, particularly in religious terms – even if our devout embracing of Christianity is not all it seems. In fact we were the last of the mainland Europeans to withstand the Christian Evangelists. When St Boniface tried to bring the new religion from England to the fiercely independent heathens who had contemptuously withstood all prior attempts at religious colonisation, he was unceremoniously beaten to death in Dokkumon the fifth of June, 754. At that time the Frisian people still put their faith in the more earthy deities like Woden, Frig and Eostre: after all, this was (and continues to be) a land of farmers and fishermen who need the Earth and the Sea to be, if not always bountiful, at least not actively antagonistic.
Essentially, Frisians as a people much prefer to be left alone and when an early version of those folks in white shirts, black ties and tidy haircuts came a-calling they hoped that by bopping them on the head, they would be left in peace – much like slamming the door in the smiling faces of the Jehovah’s Witnesses when they wake you up too early on a Sunday morning. The strategy worked for a while but the juggernaut of Christianity could not be resisted forever and eventually the Frisians succumbed to the missionaries. These days only remnants of the old religion remain. The God Woden continues to be remembered through Wednesday and the Goddess Eostre through Easter, her festival that was taken over by the Christians and recast as the time when Jesus was crucified. Wherever they went, the Christians were good at taking over existing festivals and attaching Episcopalian significance to locally familiar events. But occasionally on a mid-summer’s night, when a full moon hangs heavy in the vast sky, some folk swear they can feel the spirits of their ancestors whispering to them in the old language. Some folk obviously smoke way too many drugs.
Frisians tend not to do things by halves and when they were eventually converted they took to the new religion with the same fierce single-mindedness with which they had defended the old. As well as the need to have Gods or a God that are of some practical use to their lives as farmers and fishermen, they needed a God that wouldn’t expect them to be unquestioningly obedient. The Frisians’ reputation for maintaining their independence is well deserved. The all-conquering Romans gave up trying to make them pay taxes and pledge allegiance. Later when Charlemagne crashed and burnt his way all over Europe demanding loyalty from all and sundry, the Frisians again refused to kneel, uttering that potentially fatal sentence: “We Frisians kneel only before God.” Realising he have to kill every single stubborn one of them, Charlemagne allowed the Frisian to remain their own masters rather than go on trying to subdue them. He even allowed a coin commemorating the event to be minted.
So, when the new Christian religion took hold, they embraced it without reservation but with plenty of criticism. Unhappy with the pomp and ceremony (and corruption) that was increasingly evident in the Papist version, they eventually adopted the pragmatism and egalitarianism of the Calvinists. Religion for those whose welfare depends upon good fortune as much as it does on hard work is a serious business. They made no bones about what was required. The protestant ethic quickly and openly coloured everything. Until it was forced to close its doors in the nineteenth century, the Frisian university located in the city of Frentstjerwas renowned throughout Europe as a Calvinist university.
The city also produced one of the country’s favourite sons. Eise Eisinga is not a name that is well known beyond the limits of his hometown but perhaps he should be. He lived in the second half of the eighteenth century and as his father was a wool comber, it was expected that he’d follow suit despite the apparent fact that he was a very bright boy, capable of much more than picking the burs and dried poo from lambs fleeces – as important a task as that is. As the son of a commoner, he wasn’t allowed into the local academic high school, so he had no chance of attending the university. With typical Frisian stubbornness, young Eise set about teaching himself the principles and operational processes of mathematics and astronomy after he had wiped the lanolin from his hands. In 1774 a pamphlet was published by some noted scientists that the earth was about to be knocked out of orbit in a collision with the moon, causing it to crash into other planets. The panic it caused was akin to Orson Welles’ broadcast in the USA of H. G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” in 1938 and based on just about as much actual science. Eise set about demonstrating that the prediction was ludicrous by building an accurately scaled, fully mobile, extremely precise clockwork model of the Solar System that he hung from the ceiling in his living room. He completed the task in 1781, by which time the threat had dissipated but, typically Frisian, once you begin something you stick at it until you finish it.
William the First, King of The United Provinces of The Netherlands at the time, was impressed enough to buy the planetarium for the State. It continues to be a major tourist attraction and despite the mechanisms having been handmade from scraps of wood and some bent nails, the whole thing continues to function flawlessly today. The threat of asteroid attack would not resurface until the Science Fiction movies of the late twentieth century, by which time the world was lucky it had Bruce Willis to save it. Both Eise and Bruce had no truck with any notion that God was in charge.
Eise lived in a turbulent time for Frisians. Fryslânwas one of the smallest of the United Provinces in terms of population. Originally it had enjoyed equal status but as the area’s economic influence dwindled, so too did its political clout. The larger, stronger provinces of Holland, Brabant and Flanders became powerhouses on the back of the slave trade and Holland quickly assumed leadership, placing the United Provinces’ Houses of Parliament in The Hague, turning Rotterdam into the major port and making Amsterdam its capital as well as the site of its brothels. They were so successful that today, despite official edicts, the whole country gets referred to as Holland. Despite the Frisians still believing themselves to be free and independent, they were not. At various times patriotic Frisians made attempts to re-establish an independent state but each failed because the Hollanders could simply buy enough muscle to quell any uprising. The last attempt was crushed by the Prussian army, which had been called in by the Dutch king to crush it with as much force as it thought necessary. Good practice for the next set of wars.
A couple of decades later, when Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire crumbled after his defeat by Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, The Netherlands reverted to a monarchy and Fryslân, stripped of nearly everything, was reduced to no more than a minor province of the realm. To illustrate how completely the Frisians were disempowered, the University at Frentsjer, which had been closed by the rampaging Napoleon during his barnstorming conquest of Europe in 1811, was eventually re-opened by the Dutch government not as a place of higher learning but an asylum for the insane. I am reasonably sure that most of the staff and students had left by then – although it may have been difficult to tell. It’s a fine line.
On the other hand, the Frisians have never accepted the “dumb country cousin” status. Having retained their distinctive language, they could exclude the Hollander/German overlords from their conversations. Having retained their distinctive view of the world, they could galvanise into a single entity when the occasion demanded it. Having retained their indigenous relationship with the sea and the land they could communicate directly with God. Of course it was the refusal to assimilate that caused the dominant Hollanders to belittle the Frisians as backward, stupid yokels, in much the same way as the English treated the Irish or how the newly-minted Australians treated Aboriginal peoples. Fortunately the stubborn streak meant that eventually the balance would swing back, but for now, the province was rapidly turning into a backwater.
It was probably the worst time to emigrate there but in 1798, a young German back-packer called Andreas Ohnsmann arrived in the Frisian seaport of Harns.Actually, as he was a German, he would have been more appropriately called a “knap-sacker”. Although he was virtually pfennig-less, as most German knap-sackers are, he originally came from a small town called Sachsenflur, near Frankfurt-am-Maine in Germany, where his family were lawyers and magistrates, so there must have been a good reason why he left kith and kin and set forth. Perhaps he preferred a different kind of bar to that of his parents. Perhaps he’d got some young frauleininto trouble and scarpered. Perhaps he had just caught a massive dose of wanderlust and simply set off, as many young people have done prior and since.
In 1998, the bicentennial of his trip, I undertook the same journey but apart from seeing some very nice countryside on the way, it provided me with no startling insights. Mind you I was travelling first class on a high-speed train while he mainly walked. It was probably unreasonable to expect epiphanies with my feet on the seat opposite and sipping a very pleasant pinot.
Although I don’t really know why he left home or why he came to Fryslânat that time, I can take a fair stab at how he came. The most plausible way is that he signed on as one of the itinerant farm workers who in precise teams scythed crops during the harvesting season. These workers were called hannekemaaiersand were quite common throughout northern Europe at that time. In teams of three or four, they would scythe large fields of corn or barley, moving steadily and rhythmically, slashing the stalks with razor sharp scythes as they moved in line. Mechanisation eventually made them redundant but they were much quieter than your average combine harvester and left a much smaller carbon footprint.
The term hannekemaaiercomes from the name Johannes, often shortened to Jan, Hans or Hannes. The suffix “ke” is a diminutive, so Hanneke is something like Johnny. It refers to Saint John’s Day on the 24th of June, the day that the harvest traditionally started. Nowadays a maaierrefers to a mechanical harvester, but initially it meant simply someone who mows. Vincent van Gogh painted various versions of maaiersat work but Alan Garner describes them beautifully in his family history The Stone Book:
The three men took their scythes and a whetstone each and sharpened the blades, two strokes below the edge, one above. The metal rang like swords and bells.
The men stood in a line, at the field edge, facing the hill, Ozzie on the outside and began their swing. It was a slow swing, scythes and men like a big clock, back and to, back and to, towards the hill they walked. They walked and swung, their hips forward, letting the weight cut. It was as if they were walking in a yellow water before them. Each blade came up in time with each blade, at Ozzie’s march, for if they ever got out of time the blades would cut flesh and bone.
In effect hannekemaaiers were the first guest workers who overstayed their visa: by 1850 there were an estimated one hundred and forty thousand of them permanently resident in the Netherlands. They came mainly from the (then) Dutch speaking areas of Germany, so there was no real difficulty in getting lost in the crowd and settling in. Border security in those days was far more lax and passports were only for the diplomats. Lucky, because I doubt they’d get those scythes through customs. There is no indisputable evidence that my forefather was amongst them, but there is enough circumstantial evidence to allow a flight of fancy.
In any event, by the early nineteenth century Andreas was in his fifties; had worked in the port of Harns, unloading ships for a decade or so; had presumably acquired the local language and was registered as a citizen of the town. He had “localized” his name and was known as Andries Onsman and most importantly for me, he had married Grietje Arjens Brouwer, who had been his housekeeper. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, marrying a Frisian woman was quite a significant act because although Fryslân had not been an independent country for quite some time, there were still remnants of autonomy in the social and business strata. A century earlier the Frisian administration had enacted an ordinance that limited those who could work in the Frisian public service and who could be registered as a citizen with full rights to only native-born Frisians. Marrying a Frisian woman gave a foreign man all those rights while somewhat curiously a foreign woman marrying a Frisian man did not qualify.
Harns was at that time quite a cosmopolitan seaport on the now-defunct Zuyder Zee, servicing ships to and from everywhere in the world. Many foreign workers came ashore there and inevitably some stayed as their ships departed. The world’s very first Andries Onsman died there in 1831, a respectable 82 years old, the (presumably) proud progenitor of all the Onsmans (Onsmen? Onspeople?) in the world then and today. Until recently, Frisian names were very traditional. Sons and daughters were named after either parents or grandparents, and in our family tree you will see the name Andries Onsman repeated many times. Nowadays, the Boomer children have generally abandoned the practice and you’ll see as many English and Dutch names as Frisian ones. I’m not sure whether there is any one younger than me with the ancestral name.
It’s a pity because traditions and language are among the last defences against the encroaching world. Even though the country is steeped in history and its siege mentality of “us versus everybody else” has preserved an independence of spirit, the rest of the world has seeped in through the cracks of Mass Media, popular culture and the ubiquitous cyberspace, and we have seeped out into it the same way. That is the way of things: xenophobia was never more than a semi-permeable membrane anyway, and osmosis through the Internet is not only inevitable but also immediate and indiscriminate. But on special occasions we still sing our own anthem rather than the Dutch one, and we still fly our own flag proudly. And we still maintain that we will not kneel before anyone except God.
But whenever Frisians get too far up themselves, seduced by the widely webbed world into believing we are made exceptional by our place, our culture and our language, one or other of the tourists wondering around in our capital city of Ljouwert will stumble on the large bronze statue of a black and white cow. They will notice the plaque and ask a local what it says. We will mumble something, our faces turned away, and having been asked to repeat ourselves we will admit that the statue is called Us Mem– our mother. And another cascade of sniggering cow jokes will rain down.
But I remain a Frisian.